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At a Crossroads, dc Talk Keeps the Faith

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Not too long ago, Christian rock was a do-gooder’s ghetto where squeaky-clean artists with beatific smiles preached to an audience of true believers. The movement produced a lot of really awful rock: The artists’ intentions may have been noble, but the music itself was rarely righteous.

All that changed a few years ago, when musicians energized by the alternative rock insurgence, particularly the Seattle music scene, began to expand Christian rock’s boundaries--and its audience--with a fresh injection of energy and attitude.

Nashville-based trio dc Talk is the most successful contemporary Christian rock band, from both a commercial and artistic standpoint. With their penchant for lush, layered arrangements and jagged-edge guitars, singers Toby McKeehan, Michael Tait and Kevin Max produce music that can easily be slotted into the Top 40 radio format, while their lyrics grapple with questions of religious faith and celebrate Christian devotion.

Thanks to their songwriting savvy, dc Talk, which came together in 1989 at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., has become Christian rock’s crossover story. Two of its five albums, 1992’s “Free at Last” and 1995’s “Jesus Freak,” have sold a million copies. The latest, “Supernatural,” entered the Top 5 upon its release last October and has sold more than 140,000 copies.

Which means that the band--which headlines the Universal Amphitheatre on Saturday--now finds itself at a crossroads encountered by many artists who have managed to outgrow the spiritual pop arena: how to stay true to your original mission without diluting the message. For main songwriter McKeehan, across-the-board success is the whole point.

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“We never wanted to just sing or write songs for people that agree with us,” says the thirtysomething musician (all three band members decline to reveal their ages). “We wanted to catch the ears of the whole world and fall on open ears. We don’t want to be promoted and marketed any differently.”

There’s no denying the religious fervor of such songs as “Wanna Be Loved” and “The Truth,” pop anthems that unapologetically advocate the Christian life. Yet McKeehan is quick to point out that those songs, like many other secular pop songs, are just drawn from his personal experiences and aren’t designed to proselytize.

“Our job is to focus on making great art,” he says. “When I write a song, my faith comes out, and if that moves you in some way, that’s great. But we’re not trying to stuff it down people’s throats by any means. We want to encourage people to think about where they stand, but not be preachy about it. We’re not ordained ministers.”

And by no means are dc Talk’s members perfect angels. While the band is unambiguously devout, songs such as “It’s Killing Me” from “Supernatural” acknowledge the everyday struggles that can put one’s faith to the test. “Supernatural” even features a song, “My Friend (So Long),” that criticizes a rock star for succumbing to earthly pleasures at the expense of spiritual pursuits.

“We take ourselves seriously, but by no means do we have it all together,” McKeehan says. “We struggle with human inadequacy, and we believe that we can be more responsible as role models if we talk about what we’re thinking, and how vulnerable we can be.”

The son of a government employee and a homemaker, McKeehan was force-fed organized religion at an early age, but rejected it as irrelevant. “I was dragged tochurch by my mom, but I thought it was like school or something,” he says. “I didn’t think there was passion or soul in it. Only later, when I began to develop a more personal relationship to it, did it become more real and intimate.”

McKeehan formed dc Talk with Tait and Max in 1989, at the apex of the short-lived grunge revolution, and flaunted its unfashionably optimistic world view on such albums as 1990’s “Nu Thang” and 1992’s “Free at Last.”

“The reason the whole Seattle thing fell apart is that it was based on despair, instead of focusing on what we can do to make this world a better place,” McKeehan says.

To that end, McKeehan has formed a label called Goatee Records, whose roster of Christian artists runs the gamut from reggae act Temple Yard to hip-hop duo Grits. “We need a balance in music, from both the Christian side and the mainstream rock side,” McKeehan says. “I mean, everybody wakes up with their good days and their bad days.”

BE THERE

dc Talk, with Jennifer Knapp & the W’s, Saturday at the Universal Amphitheatre, 100 Universal City Plaza, Universal City, 8:15 p.m. $20-$36.50. (818) 622-4440.


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